One of the best gifts I've ever received came, not surprisingly, from my wife. We had been married only a year or so when she presented me with a 6-CD collection, Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings, 1955-1961. This was during a time period when record companies were regularly issuing remastered versions of classic albums and releasing career compilations like this one in massive box sets. It was a bonanza for music lovers, specifically jazz fans. Once constricted by vinyl's physical boundaries of twenty-two minutes per side, these companies could now dig deep into their archives, not just for longer live sessions but also for alternate takes that had never been heard outside of the recording studio.
When a gift doesn't hit the mark, someone will often offer a condolence of sorts. "Well, it's the thought that counts." But here's the thing -- it's always the thought that counts, especially when a gift does hit the mark. When I unwrapped this particular gift twenty-three years ago, I looked at my wife with awe. She has never been a jazz fan, and likely had never heard of either Miles Davis or John Coltrane before we met, and yet she had found and gifted me a collection of their work, a collection that I didn't know existed. I appreciated the music, but I appreciated the thought so much more. She knew me.
The bad news is that I'll almost certainly never listen to these six CDs again. They were right when they promised us that the music would last forever in this new format, but how could they have known that all the CD players would be gone within a few decades? Even so, this set is worth keeping. Packaged in a striking red and black metal slipcase with a stark image of the two subjects on the cover, it's simply beautiful. Inside that slipcase, the CDs themselves rest in a cloth-bound booklet with more than a hundred pages of liner notes featuring photographs, essays, session details, and track information. It's a coffee table book that fits in your pocket. Come to think of it, it should be on my coffee table, not relegated to a dark corner of our garage.
The six-year span of time preserved in the collection encompasses some of the most important music ever recorded, and one of the albums produced was this one. And so while I never had my own stand alone copy of Milestones, all of these tracks are familiar. I knew them as part of the lengthy collaboration between these two giants, but this was the first time I'd listened to them as intended, six tracks recorded over two sessions in the spring of 1958.
When I first pulled this record from the shelf, it was the cover photograph that struck me. Miles Davis is often rightly described as a musical genius, and perhaps one of the most influential figures in music history, but the portrait on the album sleeve emphasizes another aspect of his persona. Gripping his horn tightly in one hand and holding a cigarette loosely in the other, Davis stares almost defiantly through the camera and into the viewer's soul. He was not quite 32 years old during the Milestones studio sessions, and some of his greatest work still lay ahead of him, but there is an undeniable confidence in him here. "I am the baddest motherfucker you'll ever come across," he seems to be saying, and he would be right. Because he's Miles Davis.
And what of the music? I've been listening to this record every day for almost two weeks, and still I have nothing to say that hasn't already been said. First, consider the lineup. Davis has Coltrane with him on tenor saxophone and Cannonball Adderly on alto saxophone, which is kind of like LeBron playing with Kobe and Jordan. The sextet is rounded out by Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums, and together they actually changed the course of jazz.
Modal jazz was not new at the time, but Milestones was probably the first mainstream record to explore this avenue. Rather than relying on chords and scales as the structure for improvisation, musicians following the modal approach enjoy the freedom -- even the necessity -- to experiment with rhythm and melody as they improvise. Miles explained, "When you play this way, you can go on forever... You don't have to worry about changes... The challenge is to see how inventive you can become melodically."
Any type of change, of course, brings with it a certain degree of tension. Pianist Red Garland wasn't ready to take this leap with Davis and the rest of the sextet, and Garland actually got up and left at one point, leaving Davis to sit in for him. "I played piano on 'Sid's Ahead,'" explained Davis, "because Red got mad at me when I was trying to tell him something and left." Sometimes genius is like that.
But beyond the music theory and the innovation, this record is simply a pure joy. Coltrane and Adderly exchange bristling solos, each taking turns leaping away from the melody for walks on the wild side before returning home. The rhythm section of Garland, Chambers, and Jones holds everything together, but always there is Miles Davis. Davis's trumpet is sometimes quiet and restrained, sometimes frenetic and fierce, but always exactly where it needs to be.
Two Bass Hit
Straight, No Chaser
*This track incorrectly labelled on early editions. The actual name is "Dr. Jackle."